The Viola

A viola is a stringed instrument of the violin family. It is slightly larger than a violin and tuned a fifth lower. It has a deeper, more sonorous tone than the violin. Many people mistake the viola for a violin because they are so similar in size, shape and playing position, however the viola is set apart by its rich, dark-toned timbre.

How Big Is The Viola?

A full size viola is an average of about 1 to 4 inches longer than that of the violin with an average length of 16 inches. The viola is proportionally wider and has a more resonant and mellower sound. It is often referred to as the middle voice in the violin family between the upper lines played by the violin and the lower lines played by the cello.

Sheet Music

The sheet music for the viola is read primarily in alto clef which is otherwise rarely used. It has four strings that are tuned in fifths. When tuning the viola, C is one octave below middle C and is the lowest note on the instrument. The next three strings are tuned G, D, and A exactly one fifth below the violin. Tuning to C, D, G, A is used for the vast majority of music, however other tunings are occasionally used in both classical and folk style music.

Use and Popularity

Use of the viola is primarily limited to classical music. In early orchestral music it was limited to filling in harmonies with melodic material. The viola was liberated per say after Mozart began writing music specifically for this instrument making it equally important to the violin in one of his concerts. Even in the field of classical music the viola was not popularly used for solo pieces. A rare example of a piece which features a solo viola can be found in the ‘Harold In Italy.’

In the 20th century more and more composers began to write specifically for the viola. They were inspired by the emergence of specialized violists that performed favored solo pieces. Some of the more well known composers to write for the viola include William Walton, Bela Bartok and Barhuslav Martinu. One of the few composers to write a substantial amount of music for the viola was Paul Hindemith, also a violist. With all of this music being written, the total amount of music in the viola repertoire remains quite small.

The viola can be used in contemporary pop music however it is quite unusual to see this take place. The viola saw more popularity during the period from 1890 to 1930 for dance orchestras and orchestras of pop tunes. The viola has also been used in folk music though not as commonly as the violin. Never the less it is used by many folk musicians across the world.

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